|Synonyms:||SF, Sci-fi, speculative fiction|
|See also:||Science Fiction Fandom|
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Science Fiction is a genre of the fantastic that is characterized by an interest in science, technology, and the future (or the past). It is popular in fiction, film, television, art, games, and comics. Science fiction is also an inspiration for fanart and other types of creative fanworks.
Also known as Speculative Fiction, and frequently abbreviated to SF or SciFi, science fiction as a genre is sometimes difficult to define, as it includes a wide range of subgenres and themes. It is closely related to the horror and fantasy genres. Some overlap exists between the three, particularly science fiction and fantasy -- in recent years, SFF has become a common catchall abbreviation for the two combined genres. Still, there are 80-90 years of controversy as to what makes "proper" science fiction. (See also Space Opera.)
The terminology used to describe the genre can be a point of contention for fans.
Common acronym for Science Fiction used by science fiction fans. "Regarded by fans as the proper 'serious' abbreviation for science fiction." Earliest usage: 1929.
SFF or SF/F are common acronyms for Science Fiction & Fantasy used by science fiction fans. The earliest usage found in the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction is 1981.
"Speculative Fiction" was proposed by Robert A. Heinlein in 1948 as a more accurate description of the genre, but was later used by Judith Merril and other "New Wave" sf writers in the 1960s and 70s "to express dissatisfaction with the genre". Sometimes speculative fiction is used as a broader term that includes, but is not limited to, sf. [See Speculative Fiction article on Art and Popular Culture and Isaac Asimov, "The name of our field," in Asimov on Science Fiction (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981), 25-28.]
The term "sfnal" (or SFnal), short for "science-fictional", is sometimes used to describe something with an SF feel or background. Earliest usage: 1938.
As “sci fi” began to lose its pejorative edge – new fans entering the microcosm used it in the mundane fashion, as a shorthand way to say “science fiction,” and could not easily be re-educated to its connotations with campy monster movies – Lizzy Lynn and others at the SFWA’s 1976 Nebula Awards banquet began pushing for the alternate pronunciation of “skiffy” to retain that edge.
From Datazine #6: "Sci fi is a dated term that identifies the user as being either a neo or a clinger to bygone days of former glory. Sci fi was coined by Forrest Ackerman around the time that hi-fi was also a new catch phrase. When the the next science fiction innovation (commonly referred to as 'New Wave') began to catch on, some readers complained justifiably that stories which had no science in them could not correctly be called science fiction. The generic title became, by more or less popular demand, speculative fiction, there after referred to as sf. It is reprehensible to the advocate of sf to use the term sci-fi as it is to the trekker to use the term trekkie."
From Southern Enclave #15: "About the only fannish word that bugs me is "sci-fi" which was created by Forrest J. Ackerman because didn't like "sf." Well, Forrie, I like sf, and only use sci-fi to describe grade Z sf movies such as "Plan Nine From Outer Space"! Actually, I've heard other fen pronounce sci-fi as "skiffy" when used in this way. I approve of that whole-heartedly."
"Please don't call it "sci-fi."
Forry Ackerman, one of fandom's most avid neologians, coined this cutesy abbreviation for science fiction. It was a pun on hi-fi, the short form of "High Fidelity," an audio technology introduced in the 1950s. 4E popularized sci-fi in his movie magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmland, the first issue of which hit newsstands in February 1958, and it was applied widely in ads and by media critics to Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, which premiered in May of that year.
This connection did not appeal to the sercon fans of the era, who shunned the nickname and, much to 4SJ's chagrin, applied it within fandom to denote only low-quality science fiction, especially the kind of schlocky B movies and TV shows often covered in Famous Monsters -- "Hollywood-level stuff," as Dick Eney disdainfully referred to it.
As indiscriminate use of the term to describe all sf gained popularity in mundania (along with science fiction itself), fans began to use sf vs. sci-fi as an "us vs. them" shibboleth. "We never call it 'sci-fi'" was among the first lessons taught to neofen. By the 1980s, many fans considered it such a slur that they couldn't bring themselves to use the term even in a derogatory sense and began to pronounce it "skiffy." ("Hoi polloi pronounce it psi phi, but we cognoscenti call it skiffy,” as the catchphrase put it.)
The fan organization formed in the early 1980s to run L.A.Con II and other conventions in Forry's hometown, the Southern California Institute for Fan Interests (SCIFI), deliberately picked its name for the initials, which they also pronounced "skiffy."
Fannish distaste for sci-fi continues, but the advent of the SyFy cable-TV channel (originally the Sci-Fi Channel) has made the term so ubiquitous in the macrocosm and among media buffs, that many newer fans can't grok the objections.File 770 (issue 54, page 6) has an interesting editorial about it by Mike Glyer.
From Henry Jenkins in 1994:
I have long known that Forrest Ackerman coined the term, "Sci-fi" rather than the press as has been commonly reported. I don't think this information changes much of my negative reaction against it. First of all, Ackerman's relation to fandom, like that of many male fans, involves a certain degree of camp or comic distance from the text. Male fans often ridicule the programs, books, etc. they love even as they proclaim their fannish relationship to them. Compare the parodies that male fans write of Star Trek which often involve aggressive, ridiculing humor to the comic stories which female fans write that retain a high degree of affection. Male fans often make fun of the characters; female fans often have fun with them. So, Ackerman's term, "Sci-fi" encodes that same ambiguous relationship to fandom and science fiction. That explains why it was so easy for that term to get accepted by the journalistic community which was equally uncomfortable with science fiction and fandom. I think people intuitively recognize the ridicule in that term and react against it. But, I also think, whatever its origins, the press has continued to use it long after it is clear that many, if not most, fans find it offensive and insulting. That means that it remains an identity imposed upon us from the outside rather than one we have embraced within our own community. 
Use in Fanwork Titles
- Sci-Fi/Fantasy Big Bang
- Sci-Fi Spotlight, Bjo Trimble's zine (1996)
- Irwin Allen Sci-Fi Journal (1977-)
Hugo Gernsback invented the now-obsolete term "scientifiction" to describe the genre that later became known as science fiction. According to Fancyclopedia the term was in use in the 1930s. The Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction lists 1916 as the earliest use and notes that it is "Now chiefly hist."
From a 1975 fanzine, Spaced Out:
I've been out of touch in the area of AMAZING magazines for a while, but I was shocked to discover that Ted White and Forrest Ackerman are urging us to return to the past by using that ancient term for sf, scientifiction. I have just one question to ask -- WHY?? That term is on par with sci-fi as a term for sf. It is my humble opinion that we should leave the past alone, and stick to the term sf, or if you must be innovative, speculative fantasy. First, of all, scientifiction is clumsy, it took me almost an hour to get my tongue to say it correctly. Second, it looks moronic. Sft indeed. Third, we'll have to give up the nice and easy esseff for a cold steff.  Fourth, why do we need a change? It seems to me that that is just a change for change's sake, and who needs that?
Some people have tried to claim Gilgamesh as the first science fiction story (though it's a better fit for the first fantasy story). There are ancient Greek works, such as Plato's descriptions of Atlantis, that have SF aspects. And Lucian's 2nd century satirical True History contains an interplanetary trip that certainly has aspects of science fiction or proto-science fiction. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, first published in 1818, is often mentioned as the first true sf novel and Jules Verne and H. G. Wells as the first true sf authors. But sf began in earnest in the early twentieth century.
Some Common Subgenres and Themes
Professionally produced science fiction comes in a variety of flavors. Here are some of the most common elements that appear in sf pro works:
- Spaceflight (sub-genres: space opera, life on other planets, galactic empires)
- Aliens, Alien Contact, Alien Invasion
- Time Travel
- Alternate Reality, Alternate History, Parallel Universes
- Robots, Cyborgs, Artificial Intelligence
- Lost Colony
- Apocalyptic or Post-Apocalyptic Future
SF is sometimes split into "hard" and the less often used complementary category "soft." Hard science fiction is supposed to take the science of the narrative seriously, and does not engage in hand waving, whereas soft SF is more concerned with character development and narrative, like space opera. Soft SF is also defined as SF concerned with the "softer" sciences (anthropology, psychology, sociology, etc.), as well as cultural and social issues generally. This taxonomy has come under some criticism for the way that it seems to define male writers and concerns as hard, and female writers as soft; for example, Octavia Butler's Lilith's Brood stories may be considered soft by some, dealing as they do with biology, whereas Greg Bear's stories on the same subject or Asimov's Foundation stories on social engineering may be considered hard.
This terminology, says [Madeline] Ashby [author of the Machine Dynasy trilogy], implies that science is something that only certain people can do, "rather than something anyone can do if given the right opportunity. We live in an era in which even the basic precepts of science are under attack," says Ashby. Politicians in Canada, where she lives, are trying to keep science out of debates over public policy issues. "Those aren't soft problems. They're wicked problems."
Fanwork Tropes & Genres
Although all of the above standard subgenres can be used in fanworks, there are yet more fannish tropes and genres that are grounded in science fiction:
- Aliens Made Them Do It
- Mirror Universe
- Alien Kink
- Space AU
Science fiction in movies
Some literary sf fans have claimed that Science Fiction and movies don't mix -- that all of the movies we think of as 'classic science fiction movies' are actually horribly watered down sf, with only the explosions remaining, or at best, "science fantasy" or "space fantasy", containing the markers for SF (machines, robots, spaceships), but none of the science that should animate it. Others believe that the visuals and effects of modern wide-screen movies are a natural fit for pictures of an otherwise unseeable future.
It does, however, seem that the runaway success of many sci-fi movies (Star Wars, The Terminator, Jurassic Park, etc.) has contributed to a new surge of popularity for science fiction; as a genre, it appears to have moved closer to the mainstream.
Science Fiction and Fandom
The genre of science fiction intersects with fans and fandom in several ways. The creation of the genre goes hand in hand with the advent of Science Fiction Fandom, which dates back to the 1920s. When Media Fandom branched off from SF fandom with the introduction of either Star Trek or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (depending on who you ask), sf fandom could be characterized as focused on written sf, whereas media fandom was interested in television. SF fandom no longer exclusively concerns itself with written fiction, but it is still sometimes seen that way.
Although media fandom no longer focuses mainly on science fiction media, its roots in sf live on in recurring themes and tropes in fanworks for non-sf media fandoms. For example, while fanfiction and fanart with robots are consistent with Battlestar Galactica canon, Robot AUs can just as easily turn up in American Idol or Due South fandoms. All the above subgenres are used in fanworks as well as professional works.
- ‘We was cross-dressing ‘afore you were born!’ Or, how sf fans invented virtual community, a 2004 academic article by Helen Merrick/Anglean
- Why I like what I like... by Leia Fee (early 2000s)
- Why is Sci-Fi so gay? by Scott Dagostino (June 2006)
- The Science Fiction Museum 1990-1997
- The Science Fiction Encyclopaedia is an authoritative source on most aspects of SF, with entries on authors, SF culture, etc. and several thousand illustrations.
- The Science Fiction Foundation is a British academic foundation specializing in SF studies, primarily in written SF.
- The Science Fiction Oral History Association maintains an archive of audio and video recordings related to SF and fantasy and its fandom.
- The European Science Fiction Society promotes SF in Europe and European SF worldwide, and coordinates the Eurocon SF convention. Its site has links to SF groups etc. throughout Europe.
- Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction: sf, Archived version (Accessed 3 November 2022.)
- Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction: SF/F, Archived version (Accessed 3 November 2022.)
- Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction: sfnal, Archived version (Accessed 3 November 2022.)
- Marion Zimmer Bradley, in Darkover Newsletter #61 (1993)
- Skiffy - Fancyclopedia 3, Archived version
- About the mid-1970s.
- Harlan Ellison, in a blistering critique of Star Wars and the zillions of alleged "sci-fi" pictures it spawned, snapped "If you like peanuts, you'll love skiffy." "Luke Skywalker is a Nerd and Darth Vader Sucks Runny Eggs". In Harlan Ellison's Watching, Underwood, 1989. Originally in Los Angeles 1977, Gallery March 1978.
- comments in Strange Bedfellows #5
- Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction: scientifiction, Archived version (Accessed 3 November 2022.)
- From Spaced Out #2, July/August 1975
- Wikipedia: History of Science Fiction
- See Isaac Asimov, "Science fiction and society," in Asimov on Science Fiction (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981), 103-111.
- See Hugo Gernsback: The man who invented the future by Michael A. Banks.
- Full record for soft science fiction n.. SF Citations for OED. (accessed March 22, 2009.)
- Charlie Jane Anders, ""Infodump," "Mary Sue" And Other Words That Authors Are Sick Of Hearing. In io9, November 25, 2014.